It’s easy to forget that you are having a conversation with will.i.am, and not actually listening to a live rendition of his music which has seen 31 million albums and 58 million single sales around the globe.
“You have a nightmare. I have a dream. And my dream could change my nightmare into reality,” he explains. “A dream is a tool to change your reality.”
Right now, that reality looks very exciting for the seven-time Grammy Award winner.
Harper’s Bazaar was invited to shoot and interview will.i.am at his LA headquarters and second home, appropriately titled The Future. Once you step inside and pass the security check-in, it’s evident that the whole space is modelled after will.i.am’s own mind. The sleek interiors break out into subsections that compartmentalise each of his unique businesses and interests.
First, there’s the lab of his i.am+ technology enterprise, which is where his i.am+ BUTTONS earphones and iPhone camera accessories were conceived. Then there’s his sound stage, filled with cool gadgets and playful memorabilia. Elsewhere, two photo studios and multiple creative spaces house 75 employees as well as all the brainstorming tools one can imagine. A Masters of the Sun truck is parked outside – the Black Eyed Peas’ augmented reality comic-book chronicles – while inside, there’s a huge cafeteria decked out in futuristic furnishings, walls embedded with LED lights and accented with large pot plants meticulously trimmed into geometrical shapes.
The property itself has its own evolutionary tale with the main house branching into neighbouring plots as will.i.am’s ventures multiply; each plot connected through a walkway that tells the story of the owner’s mindset at the time. Upstairs is where will.i.am’s fashion and tailoring business lives, and downstairs is a multifaceted universe, connected by a staircase that looks like something rejigged from the set of Star Wars. Further down, leading to another property altogether, is his i.am.angel foundation HQ; a combination of zen art alongside high-tech fixtures.
Two changing rooms are thoughtfully arranged for us to set up in, one of which features a huge, almost life-size Masters of the Sun robotic figurine that sits protected in a plexi-glass box. This spot is exactly where our two-day whirlwind adventure with will.i.am begins.
Amidst the chaos of preparing for the shoot and his arrival the very next day from China, will.i.am unexpectedly steps in… and we all freeze like deer in headlights.
Unannounced, welcoming and every bit as excited and we are, it takes absolutely no time to feel like we’re about to embark on something quite magical. His positive energy fills the room as we chat about the shoot, his dreams and the background story that drove them to reality. He is overwhelmingly humble; signalled by the choice to not capitalise his name. Softly spoken, over the course of two days, his voice only ever raises in excitement when the subject of A.I. comes up.
“A.I. has already changed the world. A.I. is going to continue changing the world. Hollywood did a really good job scaring people with robotics. The A.I. that people are worried about are autonomous robots with decision-making abilities. This is the stuff we all need to watch out for because there are no regulations at the moment with it. No regulations on autonomous drones, or on autonomous weaponised A.I. So, yes, we should be concerned,” he warns.
will.i.am wears: Jacket, Dhs3,175; Sweater, Dhs1,296, both Issey Miyake. Wireless Earphones, POA. Buttons, Dhs730, NTWRK. Arm Cuff, Bespoke piece by Lucy Holt
This worry is exactly what drove the multiplatinum-winning musical genius into the world of technology, A.I. and robotics. Known as the founder and front man of hip-hop super group, the Black Eyed Peas, he has now added entrepreneur, philanthropist, actor, mentor, advocate and creative mastermind to his roster.
It’s hard to pin a single title onto the idea bank and chameleon that is will.i.am, but one thing is certain; his collective efforts have placed him firmly at the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where he’s determined to be part of the conversation as algorithms are being built and the voice of an industry is being shaped.
“There’s a huge population of millennials who are going to face a big job deficit right around the corner because of the autonomous world. But it doesn’t have to go that way. There are lots of opportunities where we could still get it right by making sure that we build systems where the human is always in the loop,” he emphasises.
He brings his message to the Middle East and rest of the world in true will.i.am form – through numerous, simultaneously ongoing projects, not least of which includes being the face of Expo 2020 in Dubai, joining the board of FIRST Global for the third year in a row, leading its First Robotics programme for kids, (which took place in Dubai on 24 October, 2019) and giving back through the burgeoning expansion of his i.am.angel foundation – a cause very close to his heart.
“I started the i.am.angel foundation as a way for me to pay it forward. I came from a Mexican neighbourhood and my mum didn’t want me to go to school in that area because it wasn’t great. As I got older and had success in music, it broke my heart that I had to leave my neighbourhood to get an education. Why can’t people study in the neighbourhoods that they came from? So I brought a college prep programme to the schools there - a robotics one.”
That was 11 years ago, and since then, the i.am.angel foundation has seen four graduating classes. It started with 65 kids and now has 750. “We have our first graduating class from college next year,” he says proudly. “70 per cent of our kids go on to do engineering or another STEM degree.” STEM, standing for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, basically summarises all the arms involved in studying robotics.
“If there’s one field to have a complete STEM degree or understanding and environment, it would be robotics. Being part of the conversation around STEM is what really matters right now. It’s 2019, and the world is about to be reshaped.”
Will tirelessly continues his part in reshaping the world, not only by acting as a mentor and solution-based ideas generator, but also by bringing his creations to fruition through partnerships with organisations such as Intel, Apple and, most recently, Dubai-based Majid Al Futtaim.
“The opportunity that the UAE and the entire region has is to start developing A.I. in a way that reimagines how we interface with the internet, and what device is going to deliver that to us. There’s no A.I. device yet – our phones are still internet phones. What comes next?” he asks.
“Right now, we’re working with Majid Al Futtaim to conversationalise a lot of their services. My company, i.am+, built a natural-understanding A.I. system, and companies like Majid Al Futtaim want to get in front of conversational computing.” This, according to him, will revolutionise the way that people experience shopping and everyday interactions.
“Siri is amazing. Alexa is amazing. OK Google is amazing. But why would Majid Al Futtaim want a big corporation to come into a country and interface with its citizens? Why isn’t there a local A.I. that understands all Arabic dialects?” It’s a very good question.
“So we built a voice-contextual conversational operation system. And then you train that system in the language you want to deploy in. Right now, we’re training them in all the different Arabic dialects. It’s pretty amazing!”
will.i.am wears: Jacket, Dhs8,130; Top, Dhs1,614; Trousers, Dhs5,270, all Balmain. Wireless Earphones, POA, Buttons, Dhs730, NTWRK.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to other innovative devices that will.i.am is dreaming up. Sitting with him, you can clearly see that he’s an eternal optimist; his mind bubbling with creative ideas and soaring in its eagerness to make a positive global impact. But he’s also a perfectionist; a Type A personality with a highly intellectual outlook. It’s a very rare thing to find someone who embodies both sides of this coin, especially where the two sides both exist so strongly.
“When I realised how creative the field of tech is, it was just a magnet to me,” he says, eyes wide. “A.I. is a very broad subject. You have it in machine learning for spell check or search results. You have it in facial recognition, to build worlds, advance geometry, to give you that sense of three-dimensional space in VR... It’s in autonomous vehicles, drones, it’s aeroplanes to stabilise them when they’re in turbulence... There are so many things you can execute with A.I. if you have a huge imagination.”
Imagination – and daring to dream – are very much what have turned a kid from a poor neighbourhood in LA’s Boyle Heights into one of the world’s biggest stars. Because it wasn’t always like this. If anything, it was quite the opposite.
“I was in a very bad neighbourhood riddled with crime, with no opportunity, no education and no investment in the community and youth. Statistically, we were either going to end up at juvenile hall then jail, or dead, or a teenage parent with no way to take care of our kids,” he remembers. “My dream is what gave me hope. The friends that I’d made had the same dream. They were my team to turn that dream into a reality. Had I not met my best friend, apl (Allan Pineda Lindo aka apl.de.ap), I don’t know what my life would be like.”
Will has remained true to his roots even as he conceptualises the next frontier of interactive technology. “Being raised by my mum, Debra Cain… that particular woman I’m so lucky to have. And she was raised by Sara Cain, and my mum told me about the things that my grandma had to go through. It’s those strong women that shaped me, and I’m blessed to have them in my life. I think if women had a larger role in society as a whole, the world would be a better place.”
He carries that sentiment through into the world of robotics and the overarching umbrella of A.I. “For A.I. to be something that we adore and aren’t fearful of in the future, women need to be a part of that conversation. Because we want A.I. to be compassionate and nurturing, and to fit into society in a way that’s balanced… and right now we haven’t [got that]. It’s proportionately unbalanced.”
We couldn’t agree more, and we’re proud to see that in the Middle East, we already have a head start on seeing this balance become real, as 40 per cent of people now specialising in computer science and IT are women. This percentage is even higher in the UAE and KSA, versus the US where it is currently 15-20 per cent. Of online Middle Eastern entrepreneurs, 35 per cent are women, whereas the global average is only 10 per cent. These numbers are music to his ears.
“It’s amazing that in the UAE, and that entire region, that a lot of girls are leading the tech frontier. That’s awesome because it means that there’s now no choice but to see the power of a woman in the world we’re about to walk into – and that’s beautiful.”
And right on cue, will.i.am’s two co-coverstars – Dr. Sara Al Madani and Emon Shakoor - enter… Click here to read their full interview.
Photography by GREG SWALES
Words by SALMA AWAAD
Art Director: Jolie Wernette-Horn. Fashion Director: Anna Castan. Set Designer and Prop Stylist: Lucy Holt. Make-up: Sam Visser. Hair: Dominique Diaz.
will.i.am team: Co Stylist: Brookleyn Styles. Stylist Assistants: Carlos Aviles and Memphs Bradshaw. Make-up: Mata. Groomer: Carl Gillian.
Videography team: Elias Tahan and Philippe Tahan. Photography Assistants: Ashley Ramirez and Yolanda Leaney. Digital Assistant: Amanda Yanez. Fashion Assistant: Kaitlyn Lusk. Prop Assistant: Miles Greenberg. Editorial Producer: Laura Prior. Local Producer: Cezar Greif